The Temptation of St. Anthony – Joos Van Craesbeeck

I am the quintessential over thinker.  My brain is always buzzing, which can really help with somethings, but when I am wondering if all dogs bark in the same language at 2 am it can get tiresome.

This was the first thing that struck me about this painting, the giant head washed up on the beach with a observation deck in to the brain is just how I feel sometimes.

Craesbeeck painted this bizarrely intriguing picture in 1650, with very clear influences from Bosch.  After the split of the Netherlands, artists revisited religious stories to revive and renew the catholic faith and this painting is a prime example of that.

To understand this painting we first need to understand a little about St. Anthony.  There are eleven St. Anthonys so it is important to get the right one, or this picture really makes even less sense.  Anthony the great is the subject for today.  He is known as the father of all monks.  Anthony was born in Egypt and his parents died at around the age of 18, and he went to live with an unmarried sister.  Shortly after this, Anthony decided that he wanted to follow the ways of the Evangelical Counsel of Jesus.  Their teachings said  “If you want to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasures in heaven.”  Anthony sold off land gave the money to the poor, putting his sister in to an early convent.  Over the next 15 years, Anthony stayed in the area, and it is said that he discipled to a hermit at this time, and worked as a swine herder.

Anthony was said to be the first monk, and the first hermit, but there were others before him, where small groups had moved out of cities and to the edge of the desert, what stood Anthony out from these groups, was that he decided to go and live the hermit lifestyle in the desert proper.

There in the desert, it is said that Anthony fought with the devil, as the devil had sent things like boredom, laziness and thoughts of women to afflict Anthony, but he managed to fight these off with prayer, which provided a great theme for christian art.  Anthony was then said to have moved to a tomb, where he “closed the door in on himself” and relied on locals to bring him food.

When the devil saw the intense worship that Anthony undertook, the beat him to unconsciousness, locals found Anthony and took him to a church to recover.  Anthony, undeterred by this decided to move to Mount Pispir where he lived in an old Roman fort.  The devil resumed his war with Anthony, sending demons in the forms of lions, wolves, snakes and scorpions.  Anthony would laugh at them, mocking the devil saying “If you had any authority over me, only one would be sufficient to fight me”, at this the demons would disappear in a puff of smoke (all very magical).

During his time in the fort, Anthony would not let anyone enter, and they would just pass him food through a crevice, or seek advice from him through a hole in the wall.  Eventually Anthony emerged from his cell, with assistance from local people who broke down the door.  They were surprised at how health, serene and spiritual enlightened he was and he was hailed a hero.

There are many stories around the temptation of Anthony during his time in the desert, some involving centaurs and satyrs, others involving money appearing in front of him and lots where the devil mercilessly beats Anthony within an inch of his life.

Craesbeeck made a compendium of the temptations which haunted Anthony in his detailed painting.

You can see Anthony sat beneath the tree in the right hand side of the picture.  He is reading scriptures.  To his right is the image of a woman, a figment sent by the devil to taunt him.  She leans provocatively over him (well as provocatively as they went in the 1600’s) holding a cup, presumably filled with alcohol.

On the shores around him, demons turn up in their droves, from a broken egg come snakes, crabs and other such creatures.  Indicating the torment from the devil and the lack of food.

What dominates the picture though is the large head with its open mouth planted on the shore line.  We see the forehead peeled open as if it is a viewing deck and demons are at work in this area.  On top of the head a nest with birds in it, painters and an eyeglass.

I think that this represents Anthony’s younger self and all the things that he has given up.  Painting, working as a farmer and items which are deemed luxuries.  The head looks shocked as demons enter the mouth and I assume work their sinful ways in to the thoughts.  I think this is a very clever personification of the memories of sin and temptation.

You’ll note that in the boats the demons look like pigs, referring back Anthony’s days as a swine herder.  I think it is really interesting how Craesbeeck has used documented things from Anthony’s past to represent the boredom and laziness that the devil was said to have sent to him.

I really do like the dutch school of paintings in this ilk, the mind on the page which was so successfully done by Bosch and then others as it lends itself so well to religious iconography and the amount of activity which is always said to have been going on at any given time, be it physical, mental or spiritual.

What do you think about the temptation of St. Anthony?  Why not tell me in the comments?  Like this post?  Why not share it?

4 thoughts on “The Temptation of St. Anthony – Joos Van Craesbeeck

Add yours

  1. I’m reminded of the movie “Tim’s Vermeer” (2013), which discusses the optical tools that the Dutch painters might have used to create works of such realistic precision.

    Thanks for the words on St. Anthony. My sessions in the desert were highlighted by the peyote growing there.


    Liked by 1 person

    1. Lol yes they really do. They actually make it look like a lot of fun (which when you think about it all the fun things are deemed as sins somewhere along the line). I find it fascinating how they come up with the complex characters and interactions. They are always something to marvel at 😊

      Liked by 1 person

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